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A picture of gaeng bumbai eggplant.
The gaeng bumbai eggplant at Nari in Japantown.
Nari

16 Essential Places to Eat and Drink in Historic Japantown

The best spots in the neighborhood for ramen, hard-to-find Japanese sweets, and surprisingly affordable omakase

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The gaeng bumbai eggplant at Nari in Japantown.
| Nari

There are as many reasons to get fresh-grilled takoyaki (or matcha soft serve or any of a litany of wonderful options) in Japantown as there are bookstores, karaoke bars, and different things to eat in the tiny yet dense neighborhood. Benkyodo, the 115-year-old mochi shop that closed earlier this year, may be gone, but Patti Smith’s favorite tucked away restaurant in San Francisco remains, amongst many other gems.

This is a neighborhood with plentiful warabi and just about every flavor of Pocky you can imagine. It’s a neighborhood where shop owners take care of each other, selling one another’s goods on each other’s front steps. It’s also the only neighborhood in San Francisco with a five-tiered concrete stupa presented by the people of Osaka. Try any of these 16 Japantown favorites for a chance to kick back in one of the United States’ most lively Japanese enclaves.

Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; it may pose a risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial COVID transmission.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Miyako Old Fashion Ice Cream

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This quaint little ice cream shop — San Francisco’s only Black-owned ice cream shop — feels like an anachronism, with its display of old-fashioned candy and cigarettes for sale amid the tubs of vanilla and Rocky Road. While the ice cream might not be the trendiest in town, it is very good, a decent chunk of it sourced from Mitchell’s, another San Francisco institution, making this the ideal spot to enjoy a scoop of ube or avocado ice cream while strolling Japantown.

Matcha Cafe Maiko

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The name of this Japan Center cafe speaks for itself. Maiko serves everything matcha — hot and cold beverages of all stripes, with or without a layer of foamy, tangy cheese or other flavored creams, and smooth, creamy soft-serve ice cream, which you can get on a cone or as part of a matcha “float.” Lines out the door are typical here, but fear not: The staff keeps things moving quickly.

Soft-serve ice cream at Match Cafe Maiko Japan Center Malls

Sophie's Crepes

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Another Japan Center sweets stand that consistently draws long lines (especially on weekends, when the mall floods with kids and teens) Sophie’s Crepes is, of course, best known for its crepes — but not the tender, delicate, butter-soaked French variety. Instead, Sophie’s specializes in the Japanese style, which means the crepes are, for starters, humongous, griddled until they’re crispy on the outside, and then rolled up into a cone to be filled with the sweet or savory toppings of your choice — ham and cheese, perhaps, or ice cream and red bean paste.

Tenroku Sushi

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As a general rule, you don’t go to a conveyor belt sushi joint if you’re looking for the most pristine, highest-quality nigiri; the city has plenty of upscale omakase options if that’s what you’re after. But for a quick, fun, low-entry-barrier sushi experience where both the quality and variety of the raw fish is also pretty darn good, Tenroku is a Japantown classic in its own right. Kids, in particular, love snagging maki and nigiri off the conveyor belt and competing to see who has the highest stack of plates at the end.

Marufuku Ramen

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Arriving in San Francisco around the same time as a wave international chains, local ramen outfit Marufuku draws lines that rival any Tokyo import’s quite simply because the noodles and broth are about as good as any in town. Rich, fatty broths — both tonkotsu and chicken-based paitan — are the main draw here, but the soups are balanced and not overly heavy, and the thin, Hakata-style noodles are eminently slurpable.

On the Bridge

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Located on the walkway that connects the two halves of the Japan Center Mall, this charming, manga-lined spot is also a bridge between cultures and cuisines, as one of San Francisco’s only restaurants that specialize in yoshoku, or Western-style Japanese dishes like hayashi rice and hamburger steak. This is punk icon Patti Smith’s favorite restaurant in San Francisco; work your way through the extensive menu of fish roe-topped Japanese-style pasta dishes, and it might become one of your favorites too.

Oma San Francisco Station

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One of the wonders of Tokyo is that world-class sushi might be found tucked away inside a busy subway station. Located out in the open in a hallway in the Japan Center Mall, this casual eight-seat sushi counter — a kiosk, basically — brings a bit of that kind of casually outstanding omakase experience to San Francisco; reservations for a full 12-course meal experience (with 24 items) are currently going for $165 per person.

Japan Center Malls

Crown & Crumpet Tea Salon

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Located on the first floor of the New People entertainment complex, this delightfully colorful little tea room will satisfy all your crustless finger sandwich and warm scone cravings. The nice thing about Crown & Crumpet is that it’s utterly kid friendly (with a private room upstairs for birthday parties and such), but also plays to a slightly artsier, more fashionable crowd than your standard afternoon tea destination — which is to say, the people watching is superb.

Takoyaki Yama-chan

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The closest thing the Japan Center mall has to a genuine street food experience, this Osaka-style takoyaki stand sells a solid version of the doughy octopus balls — a classic Japanese street snack. Ask the staff to grill your order fresh. The takoyaki’s crisp edges only last a little while, and they’re worth the extra wait.

Japan Center Malls

Mochill Mochidonut

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Fans of chewy, colorful, adorably photogenic Japanese mochi doughnuts have a local source at this popular kiosk. Mochill, which shares a space with the takoyaki stand next door, is known for putting wild toppings (e.g. Fruity Pebbles cereal) on its doughnuts, which feature the same easy-to-pull-apart “pon de ring” shape pioneered by Japan’s wildly popular Mister Donut chain.

Japan Center Malls

Hinodeya Ramen Bar

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In a tonkotsu-heavy city, Hinodeya is the rare ramen shop that specializes in lighter, clearer broths, including one of the better bowls of vegan ramen in town. The dashi-based house ramen is a testament to the subtle pleasures of ocean-based umami, and seafood lovers shouldn’t hesitate to get the clam ramen if it’s available. Also a must-order: excellent fried oysters from Hiroshima.

Super Mira

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This tidy, well-stocked grocery store is probably best known for being the home of the Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop bakery and its iconic coffee crunch cake. But it’s also got the best bento box and prepared foods selection of any of the city’s Japanese markets, and, during lunch hours, it serves hot meals and even has a small dining area where customers can sit and enjoy their katsudon, curry plate, or udon.

A relatively new addition to Japan Center’s bevy of sushi spots, this sleek, modern restaurant offers a little bit of everything — multiple tiers of omakase, all of them quite reasonably priced (especially the $55 chef omakase); a selection of kaiseki-style dishes; and, for those who feel like splurging, the option to order an uni flight or a toro flight. Probably the most popular items are the “mystery boxes”: either six or nine mini chirashi bowls of the chef’s choosing, served in a highly Instagram-friendly partitioned wooden box.

An Japanese Restaurant

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There are plenty of higher-end sushi restaurants in the city, but for nigiri lovers looking for a full omakase experience without having to drop well over a hundred bucks a person, An is one of your better bets. Prices went higher in April 2022, but omakase for one still starts at a relatively low price ($75) with omakase sashimi beginning at $56 for 10 pieces.

Japantown isn’t all Japanese restaurants these days; in fact, Thai fine dining destination Nari is attached to the Hotel Kabuki — the sister restaurant to now-closed Michelin-starred Kin Khao. Set in a grand, expansive dining room, Nari checks a lot of boxes: It boasts pretty, elegant plating, big flavors (get the squid and pork jowl dish), and lovely cocktails.

Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup

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At this Korean hot spot, the wait for a table during peak dinner hours can stretch as long as two hours, and almost every dish on the menu features some kind of preparation of beef — kalbitang (or beef rib soup); beef bibimbap; and seolleongtang, the cloudy-white ox bone soup with its noted hangover-curing properties. But Daeho’s real claim to fame is its kalbijjim, the slow-braised, spicy-sweet, fall-off-the-bone beef short rib stew. It’s well worth the wait.

Braised short rib stew at Daeho Luke Tsai

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Miyako Old Fashion Ice Cream

This quaint little ice cream shop — San Francisco’s only Black-owned ice cream shop — feels like an anachronism, with its display of old-fashioned candy and cigarettes for sale amid the tubs of vanilla and Rocky Road. While the ice cream might not be the trendiest in town, it is very good, a decent chunk of it sourced from Mitchell’s, another San Francisco institution, making this the ideal spot to enjoy a scoop of ube or avocado ice cream while strolling Japantown.

Matcha Cafe Maiko

Soft-serve ice cream at Match Cafe Maiko Japan Center Malls

The name of this Japan Center cafe speaks for itself. Maiko serves everything matcha — hot and cold beverages of all stripes, with or without a layer of foamy, tangy cheese or other flavored creams, and smooth, creamy soft-serve ice cream, which you can get on a cone or as part of a matcha “float.” Lines out the door are typical here, but fear not: The staff keeps things moving quickly.

Soft-serve ice cream at Match Cafe Maiko Japan Center Malls

Sophie's Crepes

Another Japan Center sweets stand that consistently draws long lines (especially on weekends, when the mall floods with kids and teens) Sophie’s Crepes is, of course, best known for its crepes — but not the tender, delicate, butter-soaked French variety. Instead, Sophie’s specializes in the Japanese style, which means the crepes are, for starters, humongous, griddled until they’re crispy on the outside, and then rolled up into a cone to be filled with the sweet or savory toppings of your choice — ham and cheese, perhaps, or ice cream and red bean paste.

Tenroku Sushi

As a general rule, you don’t go to a conveyor belt sushi joint if you’re looking for the most pristine, highest-quality nigiri; the city has plenty of upscale omakase options if that’s what you’re after. But for a quick, fun, low-entry-barrier sushi experience where both the quality and variety of the raw fish is also pretty darn good, Tenroku is a Japantown classic in its own right. Kids, in particular, love snagging maki and nigiri off the conveyor belt and competing to see who has the highest stack of plates at the end.

Marufuku Ramen

Arriving in San Francisco around the same time as a wave international chains, local ramen outfit Marufuku draws lines that rival any Tokyo import’s quite simply because the noodles and broth are about as good as any in town. Rich, fatty broths — both tonkotsu and chicken-based paitan — are the main draw here, but the soups are balanced and not overly heavy, and the thin, Hakata-style noodles are eminently slurpable.

On the Bridge

Located on the walkway that connects the two halves of the Japan Center Mall, this charming, manga-lined spot is also a bridge between cultures and cuisines, as one of San Francisco’s only restaurants that specialize in yoshoku, or Western-style Japanese dishes like hayashi rice and hamburger steak. This is punk icon Patti Smith’s favorite restaurant in San Francisco; work your way through the extensive menu of fish roe-topped Japanese-style pasta dishes, and it might become one of your favorites too.

Oma San Francisco Station

Japan Center Malls

One of the wonders of Tokyo is that world-class sushi might be found tucked away inside a busy subway station. Located out in the open in a hallway in the Japan Center Mall, this casual eight-seat sushi counter — a kiosk, basically — brings a bit of that kind of casually outstanding omakase experience to San Francisco; reservations for a full 12-course meal experience (with 24 items) are currently going for $165 per person.

Japan Center Malls

Crown & Crumpet Tea Salon

Located on the first floor of the New People entertainment complex, this delightfully colorful little tea room will satisfy all your crustless finger sandwich and warm scone cravings. The nice thing about Crown & Crumpet is that it’s utterly kid friendly (with a private room upstairs for birthday parties and such), but also plays to a slightly artsier, more fashionable crowd than your standard afternoon tea destination — which is to say, the people watching is superb.

Takoyaki Yama-chan

Japan Center Malls

The closest thing the Japan Center mall has to a genuine street food experience, this Osaka-style takoyaki stand sells a solid version of the doughy octopus balls — a classic Japanese street snack. Ask the staff to grill your order fresh. The takoyaki’s crisp edges only last a little while, and they’re worth the extra wait.

Japan Center Malls

Mochill Mochidonut

Japan Center Malls

Fans of chewy, colorful, adorably photogenic Japanese mochi doughnuts have a local source at this popular kiosk. Mochill, which shares a space with the takoyaki stand next door, is known for putting wild toppings (e.g. Fruity Pebbles cereal) on its doughnuts, which feature the same easy-to-pull-apart “pon de ring” shape pioneered by Japan’s wildly popular Mister Donut chain.

Japan Center Malls

Hinodeya Ramen Bar

In a tonkotsu-heavy city, Hinodeya is the rare ramen shop that specializes in lighter, clearer broths, including one of the better bowls of vegan ramen in town. The dashi-based house ramen is a testament to the subtle pleasures of ocean-based umami, and seafood lovers shouldn’t hesitate to get the clam ramen if it’s available. Also a must-order: excellent fried oysters from Hiroshima.

Super Mira

This tidy, well-stocked grocery store is probably best known for being the home of the Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop bakery and its iconic coffee crunch cake. But it’s also got the best bento box and prepared foods selection of any of the city’s Japanese markets, and, during lunch hours, it serves hot meals and even has a small dining area where customers can sit and enjoy their katsudon, curry plate, or udon.

Sasa

A relatively new addition to Japan Center’s bevy of sushi spots, this sleek, modern restaurant offers a little bit of everything — multiple tiers of omakase, all of them quite reasonably priced (especially the $55 chef omakase); a selection of kaiseki-style dishes; and, for those who feel like splurging, the option to order an uni flight or a toro flight. Probably the most popular items are the “mystery boxes”: either six or nine mini chirashi bowls of the chef’s choosing, served in a highly Instagram-friendly partitioned wooden box.

An Japanese Restaurant

There are plenty of higher-end sushi restaurants in the city, but for nigiri lovers looking for a full omakase experience without having to drop well over a hundred bucks a person, An is one of your better bets. Prices went higher in April 2022, but omakase for one still starts at a relatively low price ($75) with omakase sashimi beginning at $56 for 10 pieces.

Nari

Japantown isn’t all Japanese restaurants these days; in fact, Thai fine dining destination Nari is attached to the Hotel Kabuki — the sister restaurant to now-closed Michelin-starred Kin Khao. Set in a grand, expansive dining room, Nari checks a lot of boxes: It boasts pretty, elegant plating, big flavors (get the squid and pork jowl dish), and lovely cocktails.

Related Maps

Daeho Kalbijjim & Beef Soup

Braised short rib stew at Daeho Luke Tsai

At this Korean hot spot, the wait for a table during peak dinner hours can stretch as long as two hours, and almost every dish on the menu features some kind of preparation of beef — kalbitang (or beef rib soup); beef bibimbap; and seolleongtang, the cloudy-white ox bone soup with its noted hangover-curing properties. But Daeho’s real claim to fame is its kalbijjim, the slow-braised, spicy-sweet, fall-off-the-bone beef short rib stew. It’s well worth the wait.

Braised short rib stew at Daeho Luke Tsai

Related Maps